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NRDC Sues EPA for Failing to Update Obsolete Water Quality Standards

NEW YORK CITY (August 3, 2006) -- Beaches in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey suffered from more than 1,000 closing and advisory days in 2005 due to the risk of hazardous bacteria in the water, according to an annual report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council. New York had 827 closing and advisory days in 2005, followed by Connecticut with 200, and New Jersey with 79. Certain area beaches exceeded safe bacteria levels as much as one quarter of the time they were tested.

"Beachgoers should not have to choose between swimming in sewage or standing on the beach," said Lisa Speer, director of NRDC's Water and Oceans program. "There's a lot more that government officials should be doing to guarantee that a day at the beach does not become a night in the bathroom, or worse, in the hospital."

Across the country, the number of closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches topped 20,000 in 2005 -- the most since NRDC began tracking the problem 16 years ago -- confirming that our nation's beaches continue to suffer from serious water pollution.

This year's report includes new information that provides a more alarming picture of the problem. For the first time, NRDC evaluated beachwater quality nationwide and found 200 beaches in two dozen states whose beachwater samples violated the standards at least 25 percent of the time. In most cases, beachwater was contaminated with bacteria, and beachgoers were either swimming in it or banned from swimming because of the health risks. Overall, 8 percent of the beachwater samples taken nationwide violated health standards. (Read the report, Testing the Waters.)

Connecticut's beaches had a 9 percent increase in closings and advisories in 2005, the worst record in the New York metro area. Not only did the state's closing and advisories jump, but due to a lack in funding, Connecticut only compiled and reported the bacteria level findings at 38 out of it 67 beaches. Only 11 of Fairfield County's 28 beaches reported their bacteria monitoring results. Seaside Park Beach in Bridgeport, one of the few beaches in that county that did report its results, had the highest exceedance level in the entire state. Bacteria were found in Bridgeport's beach water 26 percent of the time.

New York counties in the metro area faired slightly better overall. However, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties all contained a number of beaches that exceeded safe bacteria levels nearly one out of every four times they were tested. Many of these beaches in Westchester and Suffolk counties are privately owned. Westchester's five worst beaches: American Yacht Club, Coveleigh Beach Club, Davenport Club, Echo Bay Yacht Club and V.I.P. Club, are all private and all exceeded safe standards 20 percent to 25 percent of the time.

Although beaches around New York City have better test results, the city does not require monitoring after heavy rains, when bacteria from sewage are flushed into the beachwater. A swimming advisory sign may be posted, but monitoring will not occur until the next scheduled monitoring day. That means high bacteria levels at city beaches may exist, but are not properly documented.

New Jersey beaches have the best record in the metro area. The beaches with the highest bacteria levels are in Cape May County at the southern end of the state; however, a handful of Monmouth and Ocean County beaches also exceeded safe bacteria levels between 10 percent and 20 percent of the time. New Jersey retests all samples that test positive for bacteria, meaning it takes about 48 hours for the state to close a beach after its water has been contaminated and warn beachgoers about hazardous water.

"Instead of shutting down our beaches, we should be cleaning up our water," said Speer. "The local governments know how to identify the problem; they now need to take the next step to fix it."

While improvement in testing is needed, tri-state area beaches generally win positive marks for proactively closing or issuing swimming advisories at beaches when wet weather is known to carry dangerous bacteria into the water. Eighty-two percent of New Jersey's beach closings last year were preemptive due to rain and roughly half the closings and advisory days in New York and Connecticut were preemptive rain advisories as well. However, rain-induced pollution continues to contaminate local beachwater and pose risks to swimmers; it requires better identification and control efforts.

NRDC Sues EPA to Move Faster to Update Health Standards

The current beachwater health standards do not adequately protect the public and need to be updated, according to NRDC. Today the organization announced it is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to modernize the standards as ordered by Congress six years ago.

"There have been significant advances over the last two decades that we should be using to protect beachgoers," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "But the EPA is dragging its feet in implementing them."

In 2000, Congress passed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), which required the Environmental Protection Agency to revise the current health standards by October 2005. The agency missed the deadline, and now says it will not be able to finish updating them until 2011.

The current beachwater quality standards are 20 years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and outdated science that leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses. Risks include gastroenteritis, dysentery; hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

"The pollution that fouls our beaches comes from sewers, septic systems, and stormwater runoff from roads and buildings," said Speer. "Poorly planned development on our coasts has paved over wetlands and other vegetation that soaked up and filtered polluted stormwater.

"These problems are preventable," she added. "It would be a lot safer to swim if municipalities used soil and vegetation to capture and filter stormwater at its source, and upgraded their aging sewer systems." (Click here for more information on cleaning up stormwater pollution.)

Beach Buddies and Beach Bums

NRDC's report found 8 percent of the beachwater samples taken nationwide in 2005 exceeded federal health standards. Mississippi (22 percent) and Louisiana (18 percent) had the highest percentage of exceedances (before Hurricane Katrina) while New Hampshire (1 percent) and Delaware (less than 1 percent) had the fewest.

NRDC today announced the cleanest and dirtiest beaches based on the percentage of beachwater samples that violated federal public health standards. This year there are 32 Beach Buddies and 22 Beach Bums. (For more details about each beach, click here.)

Beach Buddies: NRDC's 32 Beach Buddies -- which monitored beachwater quality regularly, had no violations of federal public health standards, and took significant steps to reduce pollution -- are:

  • Connecticut: Walnut Beach in Milford. Milford was a Beach Buddy in 2003.

  • Florida: Ten beaches in Brevard County: Cocoa Beach-Minuteman Causeway, Cocoa Beach Pier, Indialantic Boardwalk (now James H. Nance Park), Jetty Park, Paradise Beach (now Howard E. Futch Memorial Park), Patrick Air Force Base North, Pelican Beach Park, Playalinda Beach (at Canaveral National Seashore), Sebastian Inlet North, and Spessard Holland Beach Park North. Brevard County had 34 Beach Bums in 2002.

  • Georgia: Two beaches on Tybee Island: Middle Beach and North Beach.

  • Indiana: Two beaches in Porter County: Kemil Beach (at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) and Lakeview Beach.

  • Maine: Pemaquid Beach in Bristol.

  • Michigan: Nine beaches in St. Clair County: Burtchville Township Park, Chrysler Park Beach, Conger-Lighthouse Beach, Holland Road Beach, Lakeport State Campground, Lakeport State Park, Lakeside Beach, Marine City Beach, and Marine City Diving Area.

  • Wisconsin: Seven beaches in Door County: Gislason Beach, Haines Park Beach, Percy Johnson Memorial Park Beach, Rock Island State Park Beach, Sand Dune Beach, School House Beach, and Whitefish Bay Boat Launch Beach. Door County was a Beach Buddy in 2005.

Beach Bums: NRDC's 22 Beach Bums -- which violated federal public health standards at least 50 percent of the time samples were taken -- are:

  • California: Nine beaches. One beach in Los Angeles County: Will Rogers State Beach (Santa Monica Canyon). Six beaches in Orange County: Aliso Beach, Crystal Cove State Park, Doheny State Beach, Newport Bay (Santa Ana Delhi), Newport Beach (Buck Gully), and Salt Creek Beach Park. One beach in San Diego County: Imperial Beach. And one beach in Ventura County: Rincon Creek.

  • Florida : Shired Island in Dixie County.

  • Georgia: Kings Ferry in Chatham County.

  • Illinois: North Point Marina in Lake County.

  • Louisiana: Bogue Falaya Park in Covington.

  • Maryland: Three beaches in Rock Hall: Bay Country Campground and Beach, Ferry Park, and Rock Hall Beach.

  • Massachusetts : Cockle Cove Creek in Chatham and Sandy Beach in Danvers.

  • Michigan: Singing Bridge Beach in Arenac County.

  • Minnesota: Clyde Avenue Boat Landing Beach in West Duluth.

  • Rhode Island: Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett. Scarborough State Beach was a Beach Buddy in 2005.

  • South Carolina: Pirateland-Lakewood Campground in Myrtle Beach.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Summary of Findings
Guide to Finding Clean Beaches
Report: Testing the Waters 2006
National Press Release
Local/Regional Releases:
California | Chicago | Florida | L.A. | N.Y.

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